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“No One Will Do This For Us”.

The Linguistic and Cultural Practices of Young Activists Representing European Linguistic Minorities


Nicole Dołowy-Rybińska

This book presents a portrait of actively engaged young people representing four linguistic minorities in Europe: the Kashubs (in Poland), the Upper Sorbs (in Germany), the Bretons (in France), and the Welsh (in the United Kingdom). In numerous statements cited in the book, drawn from interviews conducted by the author, young people speak for themselves and serve as guides to their minority cultures. They draw attention to the difficulties and challenges they encounter in their day-to-day life and activism. Based on their statements, the book examines the sociolinguistic situation of each of the minorities, the prevailing linguistic ideologies and the role of minority education; it also distinguishes different types of minority language speakers. The analysis focuses on the cultural and identity-forming practices of young people in the context of different forms of community life and their different pathways to becoming engaged representing their cultures and languages.

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Conclusions: Discourses of endangerment and responsibility

Conclusions: Discourses of endangerment and responsibility

Overall, I must admit that conducting field research among young people who represent minority groups and are simultaneously interested in the minority culture, or personally engaged in efforts to promote and support it, was a very positive experience for me. This is, of course, to some extent a recognized phenomenon: scholars who study minority cultures and languages, especially in the context of their revitalization, not unfrequently find it difficult to remain passive and uninvolved (cf. Sallabank, 2013). We often move (more or less consciously) from the role of observers to that of experts, popularisers and even activists, although we think we keep our distance and conduct “objective” observations. However, when researchers spend years in contact with language communities, making friends and acquaintances, accompanying activists in their daily activities, listening to their discussions, plans and projects as well as participating in specific activities, we soak up a certain characteristic “discourse of endangerment” of minority cultures and languages, involvement and responsibility for their future. This discourse is very powerful, because it organizes the world in terms of moral duties and ethical attitudes towards those whose voice in the struggle for their rights is not heard loudly enough.

The book has sought to present a kind of (self-)portrait of a certain group of young people and their paths of action. In particular, I very much wanted the linguistic and cultural practices of the young people who are engaged in efforts to promote and support minorities to be described in their very own words, words which express their own specific thoughts, ideas and stories. When quoting their statements, I therefore found it impossible to ignore their emotionally charged aspects. In my analysis in the various chapters of this book, however, I strove not to emphasize efforts to deconstruct the discursive layer of the interviews I cited – so as not to disrupt the flow of the arguments being made and considered, and in order to present the clearest possible picture of the linguistic and cultural practices of the people I interviewed, their attitudes towards minorities and minority languages.

What emerges from the numerous statements made by young people cited in the previous chapters, therefore, is a very interesting yet complex image of today’s minority language communities, the individual speakers of minority languages as well as their problems and dilemmas. When young people speak about their lives, families and attitudes to their languages and prevailing ideologies, when they relate their participation in a minority culture and their involvement in efforts to promote it, they reveal problems that other (potential) speakers of minority languages must face, as well as mechanisms for taking action. Insights gained in this way may help boost the effectiveness of language revitalization efforts, laying ←329 | 330→bare those aspects of reality that are often forgotten in different projects. The way in which young people interpret their links to various groups and construct their identity towards their peers and their community, their approval or rejection of the adopted images of their cultures and languages and their perception of how a minority culture should function, may all make an important contribution to the understanding of the social and cultural processes that take place at the intersection of minority and dominant cultures in the increasingly uniform world.

However, this picture of young people interested in the promotion of their minority cultures would not be complete without at least some analysis of the kind of discourse used by them, along with its sources and strengths. It is precisely to an analysis of this discourse that we will now turn in this final concluding section.

In general, the statements made by young people not only speak volumes about themselves and their culture, but also provide a basis for a critical analysis of the language they use – which is by no means neutral. Rather, it comprises a whole array of references, influences and dominant narratives, which on the one hand demonstrates that young people are very strongly embedded in a broader community of language activists and on the other one points to the strong influence of the discourse that simultaneously shapes their perception of the world, multiculturalism and multilingualism. Young people treat their discourse not merely as a tool for telling their own stories but also as a more or less consciously constructed way of presenting the world and their attitudes to its functioning. It is striking that regardless of the cultural, political and historical context of their own group, what may be called the “discourse of endangerment” of languages and the “discourse of responsibility” for their future used by young people from quite different European minorities turn out to be very similar. This may result from a very strong message that is created by international institutions and organizations that deal with minority languages and affects not only consecutive individuals involved in the promotion of minorities but also researchers, politicians and the public. At the same time, when young people talk about the surrounding reality, they filter it through “narrative structures” that “organize and give meaning to experience” (Bruner, 1997: 267). As such, devoting some attention to deconstructing young people’s discourse will allow us to see in what terms they perceive the activities taken to promote and support minority languages and cultures and the consequences of its adoption for activists, for the languages that they focus on and for other observers of the social reality, who are not necessarily linked to minorities.

The language used by young people interviewed in this book will be analysed here in terms of four types of discourse, which we will call: the discourse of endangerment, the discourse of the benefits of multilingualism, quasi-political discourse, and the discourse of responsibility.

The discourse of endangerment

Overall, a broad campaign for the preservation of minority languages has been under way for several decades now. First initiated by major international ←330 | 331→organizations responsible for the conservation of the world’s cultural and linguistic heritage, such as UNESCO, it gradually grew in scale. Its fundamental task was accomplished quite quickly: the public found out that many of the world’s extant languages were in a very difficult situation and their numbers were estimated to shrink significantly in the coming years. The tactics used by the organizers of this campaign were intended to provoke people’s imagination by means of catchy metaphors illustrating the enormity of the loss. These were quickly picked up by the mass media, which became increasingly willing and eager to discuss the disappearance of the world’s linguistic and cultural diversity, the death of languages and peoples. Currently, there are many international organizations involved in the promotion of the world’s languages (for example the Mercator Network, until recently the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages), foundations and NGOs (such as the Foundation for Endangered Languages, the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and Eurolang), which influence a growing number of people thanks to the use of social media. Such organizations promote the discourse of language endangerment. From a sphere reserved for researchers, whose actions are either supported or opposed by language communities, the struggle for the preservation of endangered languages has become a problem that attracts the attention of the whole world and, by the same token, generates considerable financial resources.

The most important terms used here include “language death.” It is through this and other catchphrases that languages are shown to be constructs that exist in isolation from their users, outside their specific practices. Consequently, a language “is born,” “exists,” “develops,” “weakens,” and finally “dies.” If we look at the statements made by young people, we will notice that they use the same phrases: a language “perishes,” “dies,” is “endangered” or “weak” and it gets “killed.” Young people have adopted this depiction of minority languages, though not necessarily consciously – it has simply become the only way to talk about the world’s linguistic diversity. Such a discourse is beneficial to international organizations, because it allows them to focus on languages, not their users, who must make language choices alone (Duchêne & Heller, 2008: 6–7). There are plenty of examples of this discourse. Here, I would like to cite one taken from the UNESCO website:

It is estimated that, if nothing is done, half of the 6000 plus languages spoken today will disappear by the end of this century. With the disappearance of unwritten and undocumented languages, humanity would lose not only a cultural wealth but also important ancestral knowledge embedded, in particular, in indigenous languages.80

This short quote alone illustrates several basic ways to create the atmosphere of endangerment around languages. One strategy, linked to a certain general penchant for numbers and precision, therefore involves stating how many languages ←331 | 332→exist in the world and how fast they are dying. Most sources mention 6,000 languages, but some argue that the number is even greater. A specific number gives people the sense that they can imagine the phenomenon in question, urging them to realize that many languages (still) exist, but there is a finite number of them. This is why drawing attention to the quick “disappearance” of languages (“at least half of the world’s languages will be dead or dying”) over a specific period of time (“by the end of this century” or “by the year 2050”81) is so important in the discourse of endangerment. The various means that can be used to particularly speak to people’s sensitivities in this regard include charts (for example those illustrating that half of the world’s population uses just the 25 most-spoken languages in the world82) and the metaphorical presentation of potential losses (“One language dies every 14 days”83). At the same time, however, no one explains to the public how the world’s languages are actually counted (is this even possible at all, given the multitude of definitions of what a language is?) or what basis has been adopted for the estimates of the pace of their disappearance. However, such strategies are very powerful and appealing. Many of those who hear or read such forecasts immediately ask themselves whether this is inevitable, whether there is anything that could be done to save these languages. If they remain indifferent, they side with the “murderers,” or at least those who do nothing to prevent a disaster, although they could speak out on this issue. Allying with those who are fighting for the survival of languages is, on this approach, the only humanitarian thing to do and demonstrates sensitivity and humanity.

There is also another discursive strategy used in the fragment quoted above, one which involves highlighting which elements of the world’s rich diversity will be lost when these languages die, namely: cultural heritage (often likened to the world’s biological diversity, just as the disappearance of languages is described in the same terms as the loss of plant and animal species), the knowledge encapsulated with these languages, and indirectly the culture inherent in these languages (a notion greatly helped by the popularization of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis). All this conveys an image of degradation that reaches much deeper than just languages – it affects the very foundations of human civilization, which will not be the same without the multitude of the languages that function in the world.

The young people I interviewed indeed argued both that each language is unique and should be protected:

F18M(B): Any language deserves to be saved. It is a part of a culture, multiculturalism, respect for everybody, otherness.

←332 | 333→

and that the conservation of the world’s multilingualism is as important as the preservation of biodiversity:

E17F(S): For me every language is unique. I imagine a flower-filled meadow, and every language is one plant and we try to keep all these plants. So they must be under protection. And it should be like this with languages because they are also very rare but they belong to the world. Each language has its beginning and history, and it would be a shame if it ceased to exist.

They also argue that all languages are part of the world’s cultural heritage and its conservation is important:

A20M(K): […] this is such great heritage that you just cannot ignore it and say ‘oh well’…

V20M(W): […] we have to protect it cause it’s our heritage. Our cultural heritage. And it was transmitted from generation to generation. We still have a chance to keep it.

Finally, they argue that every language should be protected from stronger languages, which always strive to dominate and marginalize weaker languages and cultures:

V20M(K): It is not organized in such a way so as to reach an agreement together and maintain both cultures, cultural distinctiveness, but the stronger culture eats the weaker one.

Also, in line with the popular concept of “linguicism,” one can often hear that languages do not die, but they are rather “killed” by stronger languages and cultures:

B20M(W): I know English people are OK but [when they settle in Wales] something wrong is happening and the English language is coming to Wales. And now they’re killing our Welsh language. And this keeps on pushing it out.

The discourse of the endangerment of languages is perfectly consistent with other anti-modernization discourses that are dominant in today’s world, especially the discourse of modernization-as-disruption (Braun, 2002: 92), which my interviewees often refer to in their statements (see Chapter 5). In their comments, they also repeat arguments of the harmful effect of globalization on minority cultures:

R17M(K): It seems to me that now, in this era of globalization, people have realized that what used to be an important component, all this diversity, this entire mosaic, may simply disappear one day and we won’t even know anything about it.

We can also hear echoes of the discourse of equality (tolerance, feminism and gender identity) and human rights. This context offers defenders of minority languages a lot more room to manoeuvre, enabling them to position themselves ←333 | 334→as broadly understood defenders of the rights of those whose voice is not heard loud enough.

The discourse of benefits of multilingualism

The language ideologies that have gained the strongest footing in Europe include the notion of standard forms of languages having an advantage over their non-standardized variants (see Chapter 3; Silverstein, 1996) and the ideology of monolingualism (Hornsby, 2010), which is derived from the idea of nationalism. Monolingualism came to be “taken as normal, and therefore as essential to linguistic and cultural development both at the level of the community and at the level of the individual” (Heller, 2006: 85). The ideology of monolingualism is based on the conviction that there is a direct link between language use and nationality, which is also reflected in the personal, moral and ethical traits of individual people. Each additional language brings chaos into this neat whole, disrupts its cohesion and therefore poses a danger to the existence of the state and its functioning. This ideology grew in strength as consecutive generations were raised monolingually, no longer aware of the fact that their ancestors had been multilingual and their multilingualism had enabled them to live in harmony with many surrounding groups.

As a result of the ideology of standardization, which went hand in hand with the ideology of monolingualism, those who used the standardized form of the official language were perceived as being on a higher intellectual level and having greater social value (Woolard, 1998). Since the standard form of language, used in the system of bureaucracy and national institutions, is linked to the influential group that imposes this form as the only valuable one, the dominance of this form of language results in the reproduction of the power of the elite that uses it (Bourdieu, 1977), thus confirming and perpetuating the underlying ideologies of standardization and monolingualism. Minorities that were subject to these ideologies were expected to abandon their languages of their own free will and for their own good, in order to achieve a higher status and get better jobs. Consequently, they are subjected to symbolic power (Bourdieu, 1991) and come to believe that they will be better off by changing their language. They become an object affected by “monolingualizing tendencies” (Heller, 1995: 374) used in light of the multilingualism of citizens by the bureaucratic system of the state, which links the nation to a specific language in its standard form. The power of the ideology of monolingualism therefore lies in the fact that nations which seem monolingual and safeguard the domination of their language (such as France and the UK) are in fact multilingual.

A counter-ideology, in this case the ideology of multilingualism, took quite a long time to emerge – in order for a new narrative to be adopted, the previous one first has to be called into question. A social change must occur, because “[s];tories operate not simply in the realm of the mind, as ideas; to be convincing they also must have a base in experience or social practice” (Bruner, 1997: 277). ←334 | 335→Before multilingualism came to be regarded as a value in Europe, European minorities underwent a major linguistic change related to the weakening of the intergenerational transfers of their languages. When the discourse of language endangerment gained popularity in Europe, language minorities were often in the position of no longer uniform bilingual or multilingual communities, but communities that were already (to a certain degree) linguistically assimilated. For that reason, the reversal of that linguistic change, as demanded by those engaged in the revitalization of languages and researchers, had to be linked to the restoration of multilingualism in communities that had become to a large degree monolingual and profoundly permeated by the ideology of monolingualism. In order for this to be accomplished, it proved necessary to roll out quite big guns of argumentation and create a discourse that could promote multilingualism over monolingualism.

The most frequently formulated argument in favour of multilingualism (cf. Edwards, 1994b) that has made it into the daily discourse of those who promote and support minority languages is the “naturalness” of multilingualism, its functioning in most places in the world. However, this approach serves as a springboard for other arguments, which list specific benefits enjoyed by those who know multiple languages, especially those who have learned them since birth / the beginning of their education. Such arguments are the only sort that can sway parents embedded in the ideology of monolingualism and encourage them to decide to bring up their children in a way that is not necessarily considered right by most people (specifically due to the dominance of the ideology of monolingualism). Language revitalizers therefore cite scientific studies to prove the “falseness” of arguments in favour of monolingualism and the “correctness” of those favouring multilingualism. The latter include the argument that a child that speaks at least two languages has better language skills, understands the functioning of languages better and therefore finds it easier to use language in the process of thinking and problem solving (Cummins, 1981). Such a child also finds it easier to differentiate between form and substance, learns each consecutive language faster, finds it easier to listen and remember, exhibits improved cognitive skills and is more creative. Consequently, such a child is likewise more likely to get a better job in the future and work more effectively with other people. Such arguments are raised in various configurations by organizations that promote minority languages and cited in leaflets for parents, on websites, and so on. Of course, they have been also adopted by the young people I interviewed, who cited them surprisingly frequently in their interviews. Let me quote several characteristic comments:

N23F(B): The fact that I speak Breton makes me think about my vocabulary all the time, on how to express something. I want to correct myself all the time, develop, learn more.

I19F(W): Speaking another language always makes your life richer. There are more opportunities than [for] those who speak only one language or only two.

←335 | 336→

F23F(K): This is also an investment in language. Learning languages is very important and it seems that if you learn one more language in your childhood, it is easier later.

One Sorbian university student made a particularly noteworthy comment:

B22M(S): [When you speak two languages] your mind develops differently. Also new possibilities open up for you when you know a German and a Slavic language. Languages are keys. In the contemporary world, everything happens through languages, even in computers. […] When you are bilingual you have a different attitude to languages. You know that any person in the world has their own mother tongue. When you go to Africa, and they have their language there, and you know that, then you are prepared, open, and they will receive you totally differently than for example a German tourist who demands that everybody speaks German.

The Sorbian student’s words are noteworthy, because they encapsulate all the ideas related to the promotion of multilingualism: the relationship between language and identity, the accelerated cognitive development of bilingual children, better opportunities in the future and positive attitudes to other languages.

Another set of arguments in favour of the multilingual upbringing of children that was mentioned by the Sorbian student cited above refers to their attitudes to others and the world: “a person who speaks multiple languages has a stereoscopic vision of the world from two or more perspectives […] [and] a better understanding that other outlooks are possible” (Cook, 2001). For this reason, as argued by researchers and emphasized by activists, multilingual individuals can better understand and appreciate representatives of other cultures, but they are also less prone to racist or xenophobic views or a lack of tolerance. In addition to cognitive benefits, the Sorbian student also points to openness to others demonstrated by bilingual individuals, their ability to understand and get to know them better as well as their ease in establishing relations, because, as he believes, interpersonal relations of multilingual individuals are based on mutual respect, which is something that monolingual people often lack.

The young people I interviewed stressed that all cultures are equally valuable:

P18F(B): […] I think that all cultures are equal.

In addition, they repeat that learning/speaking a minority language has made them not only more emphatic but also more tolerant, open to all types of “otherness:”

DD16F(B): […] It seems to me that I am more open to the world than some of my friends who speak only French. I am more interested in other cultures…

M25F(S): […] when you know two languages and have two identities, which you have to somehow reconcile, you become more tolerant to different ideas and so on.

V20M(K): […] we are open to different cultures.

U22M(W): I think we’ve got more respect for other cultures because I know specifically what my culture is and what it is not.

←336 | 337→

They also believe that living in two cultures and languages has prompted them to fight for the rights of the underprivileged:

H20M(B): I think that those who learn Breton realize the necessity of protecting minority languages and cultures.

I would not like to challenge the arguments in favour of bilingualism or the declarations made by the young people I interviewed. However, we should remember that their statements are often not based on their own experience but were adopted from people and institutions that promote the idea of multilingualism.

Young people’s declarations and opinions sometimes contradict their practices, and their eagerness to achieve their goal, namely the recognition of minority rights, may lead to the creation of stronger boundaries and divisions between their group and other groups (especially in the context of immigrants, who make it more difficult for a specific region to retain its cultural distinctiveness). For this reason, the quasi-political discourse used by young people sometimes reflects the discourse that the nation-states use with respect to minority languages, which they perceive as a threat. Consequently, what young people involved in promoting and supporting minorities adopt from the discourses that surround them are a way of talking about the state that controls a specific minority and phrases related to national issues, even ideologies of monolingualism.

Quasi-political discourse

The discourses of language endangerment and the benefits of multilingualism are very strongly embedded in the global context, and they are also used in this context by the people I interviewed in all minority groups. However, the quasi-political discourse adopted by young people who engage in efforts to promote and support minorities pertains above all to the specific context of the functioning of a specific group. It is adopted by young people above all from older generations of activists, who have long created the framework for a narrative about the perception of the surrounding reality and the majority–minority relations. Here, I would not like to deconstruct national and ethnic discourses of more groups, which are subjects of analysis elsewhere (see for example Barré, 2007; Dołowy-Rybińska, 2013c). I merely wish to point out the most important elements that are repeated in the discourses that young people have adopted from the minority movements they have joined, because I believe that their internalization may prove the continuity of these movements and young people’s involvement in their activity.

Above all, the discourse of a constant struggle with the nation-state over respect for minority rights and its self-determination remains strong. When young people talk about the state as an active and conscious entity, they use such phrases as “does not allow,” “does not permit,” “prohibits” and “disables.” The state is portrayed as deliberately defying minorities, because the limitation of their rights lies in its interests:

←337 | 338→

A20M(K): If this state wants to be our state, it should respect us as such.

D20F(W): In Britain, we have never really been considered Welsh.

T17M(S): We have allowed ourselves to be subjugated by the Germans.

J21M(B): […] in France, you can’t be different, that’s frowned upon.

Consequently, the discourse used by activists reflects political relations: minorities “fight” for their identity (see Chapter 5), for the right to function and use their language, and the state limits these rights with the use of various measures.

The way in which young inhabitants of Wales present the world is very strongly politicized, clearly embedded in the context of the fight that has been waged by Cymdeithas yr Iaith since the 1960s as well as devolution and the acquisition of language rights. Young people in Wales are not only highly aware of their language rights but also – through their presence in a community that stigmatizes all cases of disrespect of their rights by the authorities – stress especially strongly that they have limited possibilities of using their language:

A20M(W): Obviously, with devolution, people think ‘oh the situation is changing, it’s good.’ No, it’s not.

M20F(W): […] there is a political will, we just need to do more, demand more. So we can always do better and strive for better.

They are likewise influenced by the discourse related to the potential independence of Wales, reinforced by the independence campaign that was ongoing during my research and preceded the referendum held in Scotland in 2014:84

C21M(W): Wales will never be strong when it is a part of England. The Welsh language will decline, first of all, like it was since the beginning of the English occupation of Wales. Welsh has been treated poorly; Welsh speakers have been treated poorly as well because we were occupied by the government of England.

When young people talk about Wales, they use such words as “conquered,” “taken” and even “occupied” by England, whereas England and the English language are seen as the worst enemy of the Welsh minority:

B20M(W): I’ve got nothing against English people in terms of individuals. But yet again it is the whole idea of English oppression, imperialism, breaking ties within the Welsh community.

In the discourse of the Bretons, the state is likewise pictured as opposing minorities and preventing the recognition of their rights. Such a discourse is used by the entire Breton movement and the movements that represent other minorities in France and collaborate with the Breton movement at different levels. Consequently, we can often hear such phrases as “oppression,” “harassment” and “persecution,” which are linked to something that is very strongly present in the discourse of ←338 | 339→young people, namely references to the anti-minority policy pursued by France since the revolution (“the Jacobin state,” “the policy against minority languages”) and directly to the experiences of the generation of their grandparents (“they abandoned the language,” “they were traumatized,” “because of them, they started to feel ashamed”). Some use another concept that is popular in the Breton movement, namely that of Brittany’s “internal colonisation.”85 One constant element is France’s reluctance to ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, discussed extensively in the French media and on the internet. Young people describe the state as unfavourably disposed to minorities:

W20M(B): Everything is decided in Paris.

CC20M(B): […] dominance, the imposition of the French language.

B17F(B): […] their main goal is to destroy our language to get rid of the problem, as if we posed some threat to the French culture.

Sporadically, the Bretons themselves are described as “a nation” (French nation). Young people use the term “a people” (French peuple) a lot less frequently.

References to the national issue are also present in the discourse of young Kashubs. Their power is influenced by the dispute that has been ongoing in the Kashubian movement for several years now. For a long time, the movement was dominated by the perception of Poland not only as a welfare state but also as the state with which the Kashubs identified. However, the more recent emergence of a small group that demanded that the Kashubs be recognized as a separate nation caused a stir in the Kashubian community. Arguments raised by both sides and constant references to this issue in the group of activists and among commentators have been reflected in the comments made by young people, who always refer to national issues when they are talking about Poland and its attitude towards minorities:

A20M(K): The Republic of Poland is our country; God forbid we would like to break away from it […]. For this reason, we would like our nation to be respected and recognized in Polish law.

I22F(K): I don’t know why some people […] believe that these should be separate nations. I have never differentiated, divided them in this way.

Another context of the discourse of Kashubian young people is their upbringing in the period of very powerful transformations in Kashubia’s ethnic and linguistic landscape, especially thanks to preparations for enacting the Act on National and Ethnic Minorities and the Regional Language and its implementation. The pace of changes and the development of ethnic awareness is reflected in the words of young Kashubs:

←339 | 340→

M22F(K): […] this boom started in 2005, when a decision was issued that Kashubian was a language, not a dialect. Back then, something started to happen, a decision was issued that it should be taught at schools […] everything gathered pace. It’s now easier to get in touch with the Kashubian language, for example through the radio or the internet.

It is particularly difficult to describe the discourse of the young Upper Sorbs in similar terms, because it has very few political characteristics. Young Sorbs are not interested in politics, and they refer to it very rarely. When asked about specific issues, however, they demonstrate considerable awareness of the functioning of their group and its dependence on decisions made at various levels. It is therefore worth analysing why the points of reference that appear to be fundamentally important for other minorities are almost absent from the discourse of the Sorbs. One of the reasons for this situation may be the defensive nature of the Sorbian movement. The rights of the Sorbs have been guaranteed since after the war and the Sorbs themselves became accustomed to passivity in standing up for their rights during years of communism, and after the reunification of Germany the state maintained the privileges that they had earlier enjoyed. For these reasons, the discourse of the Sorbian movement is largely unpoliticized. In the context of ethnic and/or linguistic discrimination, which all of the people I interviewed experienced, it may appear surprising that the Sorbs describe the country in which they live in neutral and sometimes even positive terms.

S17F(S): Thanks to this, we have support from the state. We wouldn’t be able to have our own country now. We have support from Germany.

G25M(S): I don’t see this as a political problem. I think the Sorbian culture is well supported by Germany and the states of Brandenburg and Saxony. Not only financially but also on other issues.

Young people have adopted this characteristic discourse of keeping things in perspective and not complaining about their situation from the older generation of Sorbian activists, so it is consistent with the rhetoric that has been long accepted in the Sorbian movement.

There is one dimension of the quasi-political discourse that young people do share, however, because they have adopted it from international organizations and NGOs – the conviction that all minorities have a lot in common:

N23K(B): We can find common ground with all of them, topics of common interest, things we care about. The relations between people from minority groups differ from those between people from majority groups.

U22M(W): They are fighting the same fight that you are fighting, their community is under oppression in the same way that you are. So I think I probably think more like a Catalan or Basque, than an Englishman. Because again they need to fight for what they are, [to prove] that the fact you speak a language does not mean that you belong to a dominant culture.

←340 | 341→

F20F(S): I’d say, as a representative of a minority, it is very beneficial to have good relations with other minorities. Because you know what others must go through and fight against. In my opinion, communication is then better.

A20M(K): We are often inspired by something other minorities are doing, because they face the same problems as we do.

For this reason, minorities should engage in collaboration:

Y17M(B): […] this relationship between different minorities: the Basques, the Corsicans, Catalonia… that’s what this is all about. We feel really close to one another. That’s where our strength lies.

G19F(W): […] we should do what we can to preserve [Welsh] and you think of other minority groups and you think you should support them in trying to preserve their language and traditions.

Young people also emphasize the exchange of ideas and revitalization projects between minorities:

M22F(K): […] you can compare your problems, your experiences, you can compare your development paths, and you can cope with those problems together, have fun together, you can open up and do something together, not just isolate yourself.

In addition, they reiterate that other minorities are close to them, because their languages were subjected to the same oppressive measures as their own languages and they are likewise forced to stand up against the dominance of other cultures and languages.

Y16F(W): Maybe because I speak a minority language myself, I think it’s a kind of a great thing, and it is important to protect small languages. And I think people of other minority would also respect me because I am from this background. Because they have also been pushed around by a stronger language like French or Spanish.

They argue that contacts with other minorities make it easier for them to understand their own culture.

G16M(B): The true exchange [involves] getting to know other cultures but also using this to understand your own culture better. And seeing that there are many things that we have in common.

In turn, the sense that all representatives of minority groups share a similar history may reaffirm young people in their identity-related choices and in their further fight for their culture and language:

G25M(S): What is positive and what was visible is that there were minorities there and we could show that we were not the only people in Europe who form a small island in a big country. It’s also good for us to see that there are a lot of such minorities. You always hear about it, but when you see this, it is something special.

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All these arguments are part of the discourse of major international and non-government organizations that promote contacts between minorities and represent their voice in the global arena. By organizing meetings and seminars or conducting informational campaigns, they stress the importance of cooperation between minorities, which makes the voice of the weak heard more loudly. Young people adopt this discourse on the one hand from activists from these organizations, from other young people who are members of their youth organizations and above all from social media, through which these organizations conduct their campaigns.

Nevertheless, internal differences are visible even within this discourse. Inhabitants of Wales usually refer to the necessity of forming a united front with other Celtic language minorities in the UK against the dominance of English:

G19F(W): […] especially the Celtic languages, because there is this feeling of being oppressed by English. I think the Cornish, Irish and Scottish, we are all confronted with England. And a lot of people would be against England. And I think you can understand why, because the English invaded us years and years ago, and they oppressed us and our language. And I think things like that help me to realise that the minority groups are somehow similar cause they suffered from the stronger countries, and stronger languages, and stronger cultures.

The Bretons are particularly eager to cite the example of the Basques, because the Breton movement collaborated with the Basque movement for a long time, and the Bretons and the Basques still play a leading role in demanding recognition of minority rights in the international arena:

G16M(B): I know a lot about the Basques, the Corsicans… I think we don’t know other minorities well enough, and that’s really a shame. There are plenty of other minorities in Europe and all around the world and, of course, we can’t know them all, but that’s very interesting.

The Sorbs talk about the Federal Union of European Nationalities (FUEN), but they focus chiefly on ties to other Slavic minorities and the Slavs in general, with which, as they declare, they have more in common than with the Germans. They are convinced that other Slavic nations will support their efforts:86

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B22M(S): You can always find something you have in common with other Slavic countries and nations or other minorities. It could be always said that we are also a minority. We are important, although we are the smallest Slavic nation.

References to other minorities also appear in the discourse of the Kashubs. For the time being, however, they have so little experience in collaboration with other minorities that the word “minority” is more likely to represent an idea than a specific group.

N22M(K): We’re in the minority, so we know other minorities, because we are interested in this.

When talking about their lives and experiences, many young people admit that they have never had direct contact with representatives of other minorities (apart from those active in international organizations). Certain individual activists are indeed walking encyclopaedias of information about minorities and have a vast knowledge about the world’s endangered languages and cultures. However, most of them have limited information about other minorities and their activity. Consequently, collaboration between minorities is not something they have experienced themselves, but it is strongly embedded in the discourse of activism and the protection of minorities. What is meant in this discourse, however, is not real collaboration but the shared sense that if minority movements act together they will be able to resist the dominance of majorities and assimilation processes. Such thinking is visibly influenced by the discourse of endangerment as well as responsibility for the future of minority languages and cultures.

The discourse of responsibility

The individuals I interviewed use a language characteristic of people who are passionate, involved, and enthusiastic about their role as activists (they confirm and become reaffirmed in this conviction by participating in my interviews). Consequently, they adopt the way of speaking typical of the group with which they identify or are starting to identify. This is especially visible when they start talking about how their languages can be “saved.” They commonly use such phrases as “we should…,” “we must…,” “we need to…,” “one has to support…,” or “no one will do this for us.”87 Of course, the discourse on behalf of which they speak can be heard in the recommendations they offer and the way they formulate them. Although their ideas are fresh, the narrative that they use duplicates the existing, established narrative in which they were raised and which they adopted.

Young people often stress that they feel responsible for the future of their language and their culture (see Chapter 7) and they are actively involved in their promotion, because they see them as the most precious good, one without which ←343 | 344→neither themselves nor the world would be the same. Interestingly, when asked who in their opinion was responsible for the future of minority languages, the young people I interviewed answer without hesitation that everyone is:

A20M(W): The Welsh people. Everyone who speaks Welsh has a duty and obligation to ensure that they continue to do so and [they should] create opportunities for it.

Q20M(B): The Bretons. The first enemy of the Breton language is not Sarkozy but the Bretons themselves. Because the people who are against Breton are Bretons and they retard Brittany. And I think [that] if we want to develop our culture we have to first motivate all Bretons. This is the only way in which something can be achieved.

G25F(K): Ourselves and no one else. If we just speak Kashubian then… of course, it depends also on schools, on education, on the young generation. On what identity they choose, if they want to cultivate this culture or not. And, of course, on us, the existing Kashubs, because if we don’t raise the young generation in Kashubian, if we don’t speak Kashubian to them everywhere, at home, on the street, it will definitely not survive or it will disappear. But it always depends on us, Kashubs.

B22M(S): Each for their own part. Every Sorb. The language will [exist] as long as it will be used by families.

Responsibility for the future of minority languages therefore rests on their speakers, who should try to pass on these languages to young generations. Politicians, teachers and activists are further down the list. At the same time, young people realize that many people in their surroundings do not take this responsibility and do not use minority languages or transmit them to young generations and sometimes even do not want to send their children to schools where ethnic languages are taught. My interviewees say clearly that these indifferent people pose the biggest threat to their languages and the biggest challenge to them as activists. It is therefore worth looking again at how young activists see those who are part of the “grey zone of ethnicity.” They talk about such people with disdain and sadness:

T16M(B): They are self-contained, narrow-minded, they have a lot of prejudices.

K22M(K): There is a common nihilism, unwillingness to do anything. I’d call it the disease of civilization. I observe it in my peers, they don’t have any goal in their life.

K25M(W): Well, I think that the majority of Welsh people are indifferent… even my parents, you know. [They think] what I do is very stupid and extremist.

I22F(S): There are Sorbs who don’t know what to do with this who do not value it and don’t transmit it. It makes me angry. They just don’t care if it survives or not.

Above all, however, these people are pictured as passive: they think that they want the best for themselves/their children – good education, an easy start in life, many open opportunities. Consequently, they are guided in their actions by economic conditions and, by the same token, by the diktats of those who have managed to convince them that using minority languages reduces their chances in life. They are subjected to symbolic power, because they believe that they are abandoning the languages of their ancestors out of their own free will and these languages ←344 | 345→will never prove useful in their lives. In this way, they implement the agenda of the dominant groups. As such, it is possible to reverse the question of responsibility: Who, in the opinion of young people, is to blame for the fact that languages are disappearing? Here, the answer is again (almost) the same: it is all those who are indifferent are to blame, and their blame lies in negligence, in the rejection of the values of their community for the sake of illusory goods offered by the external world. Thus, all people are responsible for the future of minority languages and cultures, but they are likewise subjected to the laws of the market, political forces, ideologies and discourses and they refuse to assume this responsibility. As a result, the young people I interviewed believe that real responsibility rests not on people but on activists, who have the duty to convince others to use minority languages and identify with minority cultures. Therefore, it is the young people involved in the promotion of minorities who are responsible for the future of minority languages and culture. Here is what they have to say:

E25F(W): We [activists] need to make sure that we are passing on our language and passing on our culture. And make sure that people are aware that their culture is important and that it’s up to them to be a part of this. It’s not just that people know about the culture but to make them want to be a part of it.

W20M(B): I think one way is to put ourselves in the position of a victim and say that we are persecuted and that we should get compensation. But we can also say – Forward! Let’s live in Breton, let’s live the Breton culture! I think that if Breton is to be preserved it will only be because Bretons themselves decided to save it. But we need to help them to realize it.

K22M(K): We as young activists. We need to build this conviction among people that it is worth transmitting this language and this culture forward. […] to continue to take these small steps. Also, we should not require any high culture of people, [we should not require] everybody to suddenly go to the Kashubian theatre, but let’s show that we can hang a Kashubian flag on a car next to the Kaszëbë sticker. It’s cool to do such small things, make such small gestures, slowly continue this idea of passing the Kashubian culture on.

H25F(S): We need to try to engage young people, which means making them realize how important it is, to talk about it. We have to dare putting people into some actions.

This form of the discourse of involvement, which stresses the role of activities undertaken by individuals and by the group with which individual activists identify, plays an important role for young people: it mobilizes them into action, reaffirms them in their sense of responsibility, and gives them the energy to continue their efforts. Consequently, the discourse they use is not only taken over from older generations of activists but it becomes so strongly internalized as to make its emotional and ethical charge help them persevere in this difficult role, for which they can only expect payment in the form of satisfaction and enthusiasm caused by small successes.

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How young people construct narratives impacts on the stories that they tell. Such narratives determine whether the narrator and the characters will be pictured as passive or active towards the surrounding reality, as victims of the system or as individuals who actively influence their future. The choice of the narration strategy also impacts on the reality, because “Narratives are not only structures of meaning but structures of power” (Bruner, 1997: 269). Consequently, the adoption of the discourse of endangerment by young people mobilizes them into action, quasi-political discourses make them focus on generating resistance and joining the movement that remains in opposition to the state, which in turn makes them self-aware of their culture and identity. The discourses of the benefits of multilingualism and responsibility for the future of languages, in turn, reaffirm them in the conviction that their activity is right and sustain their euphoria even if the actions they take fail to bring the intended results.


I spent three years among representatives of four different European minorities, observing how young activists, secondary-school and university students interested in the minority cultures, took their first steps in the field of the promotion of minority languages and cultures. Over this time, I met with them and talked to them on numerous occasions and I was included in various interesting activities. I was continually astonished by their enthusiasm, which also reaffirmed me in the conviction that my research made sense. Thanks to their words, actions and everyday joy with successful campaigns, they infected me and others with the sense that the protection of minority languages and cultures was important.

As a researcher who has spent years studying this topic, I am often asked why we should save minority languages, if people do not want to use them? I thought for a long time how I could formulate my answer, which I found so obvious that I had difficulty verbalizing it. Should I use the arguments raised by linguists, international organizations, the activists themselves? Arguments that are “rational,” “scientific,” or “emotional”? It was not until I started conducting research among young activists that I was reaffirmed in the conviction that the answer should actually be quite simple: because there are people who find the future of their languages and cultures important. Nothing more, and nothing less.

The young people I interviewed turned out to know a lot about the political, social and historical context of their own groups. Despite being so young, they were already proficient in using discourses that were important for activists and helped them make others aware of the importance of their actions and goals and encourage others to join them. Their identification with a minority culture is based on practicing it as an endangered culture. Using minority languages, which many of them have learned outside their home, requires awareness and reflection. Activism is therefore inherent in the cultural and linguistic practices understood in this way and involvement is inherent in such activism. Of course, it can become stronger over time, but it may also dwindle.

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I started writing this book immediately after I finished my field research. I have met with many of the people I interviewed regularly for a long time and I have observed others on Facebook. Over these several years, the lives of the individual people have changed. Some of them have remained activists, whereas others have completely abandoned the promotion of their languages. Some of them lost their interest in activism after finishing their university studies and starting families and redirected their social activism elsewhere. Several people have become actively involved in the political life of minorities. Others have found jobs in minority institutions or organizations, where they could make use of the experiences and contacts they made earlier. Several of them have become teachers of minority languages, some are doing doctorates related to minority topics. Others have left their little homelands and will most probably never go back. Still others received jobs in fields so far away from the promotion of minority languages that their involvement gradually dwindled. Some high-school graduates, full of enthusiasm at school, have taken up other interests during their university studies, joined other communities of practice and stopped promoting their cultures. But the purpose of this book is not to draw up any tally. Rather, I wanted to describe the linguistic and cultural practices of specific people at a specific time – their dilemmas, problems and strategies of engagement in the life of minorities, identification with groups and promotion of their interests. Although my research covered a very narrow and distinctive group, I believe that I have succeeded in shedding some light on the processes that are important in thinking about language communities, their functioning and the measures they take to preserve their identity, language and culture and will be used both to make social diagnoses of today’s society, especially young people, and by ethnic leaders and authors of minority language policies.

80 See: (access: 12.08.2015).

81 See: (access: 12.08.2015).

82 See: (access: 12.08.2015).

83 See: (access: 12.08.2015).

84 Over 55% of inhabitants voted against Scottish independence.

85 This concept has been also adopted by the Kashubian national movement.

86 This conviction is also part of the Sorbian discourse. The Sorbian intelligentsia have always worked closely with the Poles and the Czechs. So far, the main argument in favour of learning Sorbian in Lusatia has been the conviction that if one knows Sorbian, it will be easier for one to learn Czech, Russian or Polish. In reality, very few Sorbs take up this challenge and schools rarely offer courses of other Slavic languages. Some of the people I interviewed even admitted that they had never visited Poland or the Czech Republic despite their proximity. However, closeness between Slavic nations and languages remains an element of the discourse.

87 The latter common assertion serves, of course, as the title of this book.